Where Are We Relative to a New Release Schedule for Lake O?

by SC Contributor Jim Metzler

A January article discussed how the Army Corps of Engineers was beginning a multi-year project to develop new guidelines, referred to as the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), for managing the releases out of Lake Okeechobee. This article will summarize the LOSOM related activities that have taken place to date and it will discuss the September 16th meeting the Army Corps hosted in Cape Coral to discuss the project.

The LOSOM Timeline

The current guidelines for managing the releases out of Lake O, referred to as the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), were implemented in 2008. When LORS was created, it was acknowledged that the release schedule should be updated when some critical water infrastructure projects, such as the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike, were completed. Because that rehabilitation is expected to be completed in 2022, the process that the Army Corps has established for LOSOM calls for LOSOM to be implemented in multiple stages, beginning in 2023.

Activities to Date

In February and March of this year, the Army Corps held a series of ten LOSOM scoping meetings around south Florida. The Corps’ stated purpose for these meeting was to “Engage all of our stakeholders in meetings such as this so we can hear all of your voices, and understand what priorities moving forward should be.” For a transcript of the meeting that was held in Lehigh Acres, see more.

In May and June of this year, the Corps held a series of webinars to educate the public on a variety of topics related to LOSOM. For example, the topic of one of the Webinars was Kissimmee River Restoration. The slides that were used for each of these Webinars can be found here.

In August, the Corps held the first in a series of Project Deliver Team (PDT) meetings. These meetings are being held in part to satisfy the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which was enacted in 1972 to ensure no outside group becomes the preferred source for advice for a federal agency. Over sixty invitations to the August meeting were sent to a range of Federal agencies, State agencies, Local governments and Florida based Tribes. The public was also invited to attend. The slides that were used at the August meeting can be found here. The next PDT meeting will be from 1:00 PM to 4:30 PM on Thursday, September the 26th. It will be Internet based and can be accessed here.

The September 16th LOSOM Public Workshop

The Corps stated that they would be holding a series of LOSOM workshops, although no dates were given for the subsequent workshops. The Corps also stated that as a result of the ten scoping meetings they held in February and March, that they received more than 8,000 comments from a range of stakeholders. Those stakeholders included the US Congress, multiple water management districts as well as multiple state agencies and municipalities. It also included environmental organizations, fishing interests, the tourism industry, agricultural interests, private citizens, realtors and the medical community.

The Corps didn’t attempt to characterize the comments they received based on the type of stakeholder. As shown in the following table, they did identify four different geographical communities and summarized the types of comments they received from each community.

Comments by Geographical Community

West CoastSouth FloridaLake OEast Coast
Accelerate LOSOMTake time to let science drive scheduleTake time to let science drive scheduleAccelerate LOSOM
Lower the LakeHigher Lake levelsHigher Lake levelsBoth higher and lower Lake levels
Move water southImprove flow to EvergladesFocus on water quality and supply Focus on water quality and supply
Focus on human healthFocus on water supplyFocus on agriculture and recreationFocus on the economy
Focus on ecosystem healthFocus on water qualityFocus on the health of the LakeFocus on human health

The Corps spent most of the morning explaining their process and taking comments from the public. One thing the Corps pointed out was that they have established several sub-teams to focus on key components of the overall process. The focus areas are: economics, environment, modelling, plan formulation, water quality/harmful algae blooms, and water supply. Members of the public can join one or more of these sub-teams.

They also presented numerous PowerPoint slides that identified their draft objectives, considerations, and constraints. For example, their draft considerations for water quality include inflows to Lake O as well as water within Lake O, the St. Lucie River and its estuaries, the Caloosahatchee River and its estuaries, and the Everglades Protection Area.

To get more specific detail on what was discussed, readers are encouraged to review the slides that were used at the meeting. The Corps stated that these slides would soon be available at their Web site.

Three Key Takeaways
1. The Army Corps is diligently working to both educate the public and to provide multiple opportunities for the public to provide comments into the LOSOM project.
2. The feedback from the scoping meetings indicate that LOSOM is extremely important to a large number of different stakeholders, whose objectives are sometimes in concert and sometimes in conflict.
3. In part due to government bureaucracy and in part due to the complex nature of the task, the LOSOM project will be lengthy and complex.

Until her recent retirement, Lt. Colonel Jennifer Reynolds was in charge of LOSOM. In a private meeting she advised me to continue to be involved in the LOSOM project because “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. While her advise is not surprising, it should serve as an invitation to all of us. If the releases out of Lake O are important to you, get involved. As a minimum, sign up for project updates at the Army Corps web site. If you want to have an impact, attend meetings, both in person and on the Web. Join one or more of the sub-groups, and most importantly, be a squeaky wheel! At every opportunity provide input to the Corps on the overall LOSOM process and what is important to you.

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